Photo from Houston Grand Opera by photographer Lynn Lane
When I read Horton Foote’s play A Coffin in Egypt, I thought it was kind of gothic. I loved the concept of this ninety-year-old woman, Myrtle Bledsoe, looking back on her life and trying to resolve all of her sorrow, regret, resentment, and anger. It felt immediately like the “stuff” of opera. As a reflection of her age, Myrtle keeps repeating things, and I knew that would be a good thing musically. I could repeat musical themes throughout the piece and sometimes mutate them as if a mind is playing with them.
The gospel music element is integral to this work, and I knew pretty early that I wanted to write it myself. But I wasn’t sure how I wanted to handle it—perhaps record the music and then overlay it with the sound of the prairie, wind, and birds. One night I woke up at around 4:00 in the morning—this is sort of the witching hour for me. I suddenly “heard” the opening of the piece, which is the gospel song “Step Back,” and I got up and went to the keyboard, and I wrote it down. As soon as I began writing, I realized that the gospel songs had to be live, and that’s when we added a gospel quartet.
When HGO first approached me, this was to be a one-woman piece for Frederica von Stade, but Lenny decided to write actors into the show to take on the parts of family members. So now, with a gospel quartet and actors, the piece became bigger. We did a workshop last June, and Lenny and I thought we needed more gospel songs, so we wrote two more while we were there. Then, in December we came together again and a wonderful thing happened. Lenny had written this beautiful little monologue for Flicka. He’d actually taken it from the play where she’s painting trees and talking about the trees she’s painting. During the workshop, Flicka was speaking the monologue, and I said, “You guys, don’t be mad at me, but I think that’s an aria.” They both agreed, so I went home and wrote it that night, and we put it in the next day. The orchestration is very transparent. The effect I was going for is almost an evanescent quality, like the piece is about to disappear the way the story is about to disappear in Myrtle’s head.
I’ve heard Flicka’s voice since I was a child—she’s been singing since I grew to love singing—so it was easy for me to write for her. The piece fits her like a glove. There’s an aria towards the end of the piece when she sings, “If I could choose one day to do over, do you know what it would be? One of those clear spring days when I came here as a bride.” And when I heard her sing that in the workshop, I just started to cry. I wasn’t crying for Myrtle Bledsoe. I was happy because it felt to me at that moment that Lenny and I had created a beautiful vehicle for Flicka.
—Ricky Ian Gordon, composer
On a late fall afternoon, just before sundown, ninety-year-old Myrtle Bledsoe is trying to make peace with her long life. She has outlived her husband, daughters, and virtually everyone else in Egypt, Texas. In this tale of adultery, deception, murder, and lost beauty, Myrtle is determined to finally free herself of all the resentment and hate that has ruled her life for so long and once again experience the remarkable beauty all around her.
A Coffin in Egypt is based on Pulitzer Prize–winner Horton Foote’s play of the same name. I had the great privilege of working with Horton when I directed the play version of A Coffin in Egypt in 1998. It was an invaluable experience having him by my side as we explored the character of Myrtle Bledsoe and her need to find meaning in her long life. My most vivid memory of my time with Horton was the afternoon we spent recording hymns in an African-American church on Long Island, New York. The recording was to be used as off-stage sound cues in the play. I had never seen him so excited and moved as when that congregation burst into song. As their voices rang out with such abandon, we both wished the audience could experience them live as we were. For Horton, music was always an intrinsic part of the play. As I think back, that is probably when the seed was planted in my mind that this could be an opera. Over the years, whenever I thought of A Coffin in Egypt, my mind would always go back to that rainy afternoon in a church filled with music and Horton singing along with the best of them.
—Leonard Foglia, librettist and director